Sunday, August 17, 2014

H is for Hawk - Helen Macdonald

'H is for Hawk' feels like one of those books which has come from nowhere and is suddenly everywhere. I saw a particularly pretty cover on twitter a couple of months ago and commented on it, on the back of that Shiny New Books asked me if I'd write about it for them (the answer was obviously yes) and in due course an uncorrected proof arrived. It sat around for a few weeks and then just as I was thinking I ought to get on with it it was published, Waterstones book of the month, reviewed everywhere, and a best seller. I've checked, and whilst this isn't Helen Macdonald's first book (there's an earlier one about falcons, and a collection of poetry) there's nothing to suggest that something like this was in the offing either. Seeing success like this is beguiling, it sheds a particular sort of glamour about it.

When Macdonald's father dies suddenly and unexpectedly - he's out working when he has a heart attack - she has something of a breakdown. To cope she turns back to an earlier career as a falconer, feeling compelled to train a Goshawk, it partly works though a later diagnosis of depression makes it clear that there are no shortcuts to dealing with grief. In a nutshell that's what the books about; grief, falconry, identity, oh and T H White author of (amongst other things) 'The Goshawk' and 'The Once and Future King'. The beauty of it is that it's got a lot of other things in it too, and that it's capable of drawing a deeply personal response from the reader.

I sometimes think the Victorians had it right with their highly codified approach to mourning, rules and routine can be so very helpful in times of extreme distress. One of Macdonald's problems is that she has no partner, no children, and no 9-5 job, so very little to distract her from what she's feeling. A hawk will provide distraction, or at least it'll demand concentration and impose a routine, give time for the bereaved mind to readjust to this changed status and order of things. The choice of a goshawk, is for Macdonald, an indication of how much the order of things have changed. It's not her normal bird, and they have a very specific reputation, history, and symbolism.

Initially it seems the hawk is doing what the reader hopes it might - helping Macdonald put herself back together. The process of building up a working relationship with the bird is enthralling, a slow winning of a certain amount of trust from the animal based on a mix of familiarity and food. There is always a sense that it can all be lost in a moment if for any reason the hawk decides it's had enough - tame isn't really a word to describe a bird of prey however long it's lived with people.

Meanwhile there is also the question oh T H White, his 'The Goshawk' is a classic of nature writing, his story of an epic battle with a bird he calls Gos, the first he attempts to train. I know it's a classic because I've heard of it, even if I haven't read it, I haven't read it because it's always sounded a little bit to macho to really appeal. Macdonald discovered it as a falconry obsessed child, already one who knew White was getting it wrong, but to young to appreciate what might have been going on behind the training. An adult Macdonald finds more in the book and to such an extent that she becomes a little bit obsessed (or haunted) by White in a way that will be familiar to any reader who's ever found themselves talking to a book (not the ones you want to throw across a room in frustration, or just stop reading, but the ones that call forth an altogether more constructive desire for debate). I think White is what gives this book it's balance, he's where emotion and technique meet, he makes it a less intensely personal read but also a more human one, and he's a great bridge for exploring the symbolism and history of the hawk.

My copy is an uncorrected proof (in due course I'll buy a paperback copy so I have the finished article as well as something which is almost the last stage but also a work in progress) on the cover it has a quote from Mark Haddon saying "It just sings. I couldn't stop reading". In the end that sums it up, it does sing, is full of ideas and questions, it deserves every bit of success it gets

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